Sunday, August 25, 2013

Still caught between cliché and spasm

The Congress formula for Indian Muslims is rooted in colonial legacy: divide and rule. The BJP approach has been shaped by rage at partition: avoid and rule. All Muslims want from both claimants to national power is provide and rule; not because they are Muslims but because they are largely poor.
Poverty was the prevailing story when India became independent. It cut across other fault lines: there was a morbid equality of poverty. More than six decades of uneven growth later, we have the inequality of partial success.
Neither the Congress nor the BJP prescription is sustainable , but in the short run Congress gains from cynicism have been so spectacular that it has stopped thinking outside its established clichés . The BJP thinks in spasms, if it thinks at all.
Congress squeezed into space created by the psychological bounce of a traumatic history. After dramatic initial resistance to British colonialism, Muslim elites bought into separatism with a vengeance, particularly when they realized that the tactics of division could perpetuate their privileges within a slice of geography. Battered by defeat in the battle for Pakistan, Congress capitulated intellectually and tweaked the slogan, after 1947, from division to isolation. It concluded that the quickest route to the Muslim vote was through accommodation with the extreme rather than dialogue with the broad Muslim centre. In the 1940s partition became the fashionable ideology of the landed gentry and middle class in north India. When they left for Pakistan the vacancy was filled by suddenly empowered clerics who, unsurprisingly, stressed faith over economics.
This kept both clerics and community poor, but the atmospherics were rich in tokenism. A normal relationship with Muslim voters would have kept the balance of debate along jobs and revival. This bargain with the extreme suited Congress perfectly. There were not too many jobs on offer in the first phase of our development. The upper castes got the chunk of the initial bite; the second surge went to 'Backward Castes' who had mobilized under different banners but displayed common economic purpose. The Muslims got false promises and high drama, hyped with high-voltage simulation of a "Hindu backlash" . Such a backlash never came because it never existed. But fear was the electoral key: if Muslims could be driven into a polling booth on the basis of fear, why waste jobs on them?
In the absence of economic security, Muslims were fobbed off with security of faith. This was essentially meaningless, as it is the Constitution which guarantees religious freedom, not any political party. The narrative of violence was edited as required: Gujarat's riots continue their refrain, but Assam , where the violence drove hundreds of thousands of Muslims into near-permanent refugee camps, is excised from attention; and the horrors of Mumbai in 1993 erased from memory despite the fact that no action has been taken on the subsequent enquiry committee report.
BJP and Muslims lived on the same street, but walked on opposite pavements without a zebra crossing. They did not speak the same language. Attempts at conciliation, let alone reconciliation, were rare. The BJP had little to say, and Muslims did not want to hear that little. Even when the BJP's liberal icon Atal Behari Vajpayee tried to reach out when he contested from Lucknow, he was spurned. There is little point discussing whether Muslims will vote for the BJP if Narendra Modi is named its candidate for prime minister. Will they vote for BJP if he is not?
Every election registers some flicker of change on the barometer. In the Congress case, the chicken came before the egg and produced a farmful of votes. With the BJP, the egg must come before the chicken. This egg has to be fertilized in the mind. In this important therefore that the most significant statement of the campaign so far was Narendra Modi's remark that the only religion of a politician must be the Constitution of India. This may be only the opening line of a chapter yet to be written, but it is already a huge variant on conventional perception. The themes of that chapter must be employment, education and political equity, for they are the true antidote to any community's impoverisation.
Onions, like the Constitution of India, have no religion either . It is bizarre to believe that an impoverished people will continue to support, en masse, a catastrophic government that has taken food off their plate and looted the nation with a creativity that should win the highest awards. Over the last decade, particularly at the state level, Muslim voters have displayed sophisticated tactical finesse: note the Assembly results in UP, Bihar and Bengal. They want jobs, and a better life.
The most efficient form of economic growth comes when a country can maximise development across all its demographic segments. Everyone will not pull equally, but everyone must pull. Half of India is still underperforming. Raise its wealth and walk into high double digit growth. Economics is not complicated once the human being gets more attention than statistics. 


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Welcome to the Indian animal farm

 Who says no one listens to Dr Manmohan Singh? The animals do. Ever since the Prime Minister of India ordered Indians to release their animal instincts, the bears have started a carnival on Dalal Street.
Maybe the instructions of our first economist-PM got mislaid in translation. He surely wanted bulls to march across Mumbai, conquering every stock exchange in an exhilarating stampede. Instead, horrible little bears arose from long hibernation, and turned into a wrecking crew that has left the economy gasping and government choked. In the meantime, picking up on another variation of the animal theme, the Indian rupee has turned into a truant chimpanzee, sliding down with pathetic glee and jumping up with an occasional wheeze, but quite certain that its destination is downhill.
If the great Indian animal farm of 2013 seems out of control, it is because the keepers have lost the map as well as the plot.  The economy is only one casualty of self-generated mayhem. The political stability of India is equally a shambles.

The recent behaviour of the UPA government has been utterly bizarre. Congress might lose the plot, as it has done before, but it has enough experience in its DNA to manage a Parliament session. The current session is an object lesson in suicide. As seasoned a politician as Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath gives the impression of being either  a fool or a zombie; and since his track record proves that he is not silly, then he is under clear instructions to act like a robot.

Preparations for any session of Parliament rest on a basic principle: get your priorities right. The UPA’s declared priority was the Food Security Bill. They had even set a date for full rollout: 20 August, the late Rajiv Gandhi’s birthday. The rest was actually quite simple. All that government had to ensure was that atmospherics were under control when the session opened, so that the bill could go through in the first week.  The Opposition was trapped. It could not say no, but was unwilling to say yes, for both fiscal and political reasons. It was the perfect environment for government to sail through, putting some ballast in its wings as it did so.
Instead, UPA, led by Mrs Sonia Gandhi and her faithful lieutenant Digvijaya Singh, for reasons that elude the comprehension of common sense, decided to kick up a massive storm over Telangana. Inevitably, dust from this storm blinded the monsoon session. Telangana has been on the anvil for four years; would another four weeks have mattered? In fact, the Prime Minister could have made the announcement on the floor of the House after the passage of food security;  and if the rest of the session was washed out at the least this bill would have been home, high and dry.

Here is a little more to perplex you. Why did government suddenly abandon its opaque tactics of evasion and fudge over the missing coal scam files in the middle of the session? These “missing” files first came to public attention when last May CBI director Ranjit Sinha said publicly that he could not pursue investigations because he had not received them. We all know why. Government is in deep trouble over this colossal corruption. Its star industrialists in Parliament, like Naveen Jindal and Vijay Darda, are involved. There is nothing mysterious about the fact that files pertaining to these two are among those missing. It seems to be a case of theft compounded by abetment. A few more chunks of evasion would not have made absolution easier in the eyes of God, if God has time for Indian corruption anymore.

Moreover, in terms of purely Parliamentary tactics, if the Prime Minister was going to make a statement on the files, which was the Opposition’s demand, and which he was obliged to do as  minister in charge of coal mines at the relevant time, why did he not make this statement on the very first day? Why did he have to wait a week to promise to do so, and thereby erase one-fourth of the session from the agenda? This makes no sense. It is not the Opposition that has delayed the Food Security Bill, however much it may have wanted to, but the government. The reason? Inexplicable. The worst damage is done by incompetence, not evil intent.
All careers, they say, end in futility — but only if you do not know when to quit. Dr Singh will understand this analogy, since he likes America and American businessmen. The share price of Microsoft just went up 7% after its chief executive officer, Steve Ballmer, announced he was leaving. Ballmer was once a hero of Micrsoft, and an astonishing videotape shows him bouncing across the stage at a company gathering, making cowboy noises, in the days when he took the job as an untarnished superstar.

How much will the share price of India rise when the government of Dr Manmohan Singh quits?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Reboot or rewind to 1963

Reboot or rewind to 1963

It is distressing to note that India, which gave mathematics the noble concept of zero, should have missed the chance to offer history a perfect numerical symmetry. If a dollar was worth one rupee in 1947, then 66 years later poetic justice suggests it should be worth 66 rupees instead of a tawdry variable between 61 or 62. A rupee a year is a lyrical measure of decline. A few rupees more, and the Indian economy could have become such a sing-along nursery rhyme. 

Satire is the thin wedge that separates fear from panic. Indian businessmen are not yet panic-stricken, but they are edging towards the zone of fear. As haemorrhaging international confidence in India weakens fund inflows, they know we cannot easily defend a rupee under siege. The statistics are chilling. Debt in the current fiscal is running at $172 billion. The Reserve Bank has foreign exchange for just seven months’ imports, which would have been manageable if the bleed was not moving from drip to gush. There is deep worry that vacuous governance and an unstable political environment will lead us to the door of the IMF in Washington, a large begging bowl in hand. Instead of answers, the UPA government is offering alibis, some of them so lame they seem struck with polio at birth. India has become the worst story in the BRIC club. 

A robust economy, which is what India had become, does not wither because it has been suddenly hit by lightning; it enters a coma, limb by limb. This UPA administration believed that it could buy time with illusion, or by passing the blame to external factors or home-grown socialists. Last year, it even tried to scapegoat former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee after he moved upstairs to the President’s palace, and P Chidambaram was given the finance portfolio. 

A sudden flurry of stories appeared— foreign correspondents seemed particularly gullible — suggesting that Chidambaram would, with a wizard’s touch, strengthen the rupee, slash the energy bill, reduce the deficit, pump up industrial production and tame inflation. Tell that to the onions in 2013. 

Those at the rough end of inflation, the poor, are tired of excuses. They look at a nourishing monsoon and wonder why, as they head to the vegetable market, prices go up when there is drought, and rise further when there is rain. This is their translation of a government’s economic record. In 2005 a still buoyant Dr Manmohan Singh promised the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort that poverty and ignorance (the term he used was jehalat) would end in 10 years. His plaintive admission, in this year’s Independence speech, that there was still a long way to go, is bitter testament to a failed decade. 

The only culprit that the government can find is gold. Gold is the minor luxury that a confident economy purchases for its middle class. The cost of gold imports has become a problem only because the economy has imploded. 

Analogy comes easily in conversation. Those with a reasonable memory have begun to worry about a return to 1991, when we sent our national gold reserves to London as collateral for foreign exchange. If we are not careful we might be staring at 1963, when finance minister Morarji Desai imposed gold control to save foreign exchange. Desai, and a much-weakened prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, could issue orders and change laws but they could not thwart the Indian’s appetite for gold, even when he was in a much more abstemious mood half a century ago. All that happened in the 1960s was that the consumer turned to smugglers. From this emerged underworld icons like Haji Mastan, Kareem Lala and their heir, Dawood Ibrahim. India has paid a heavy price, including the whiplash of terrorism. 

When a nation’s confidence is undermined, adversaries abroad pounce to take advantage, and uncertainty within encourages social tensions. In the 1960s we were tested by both China and Pakistan; today Pakistan ambushes an Indian army patrol, kills five jawans and passes a resolution in its parliament condemning Indian aggression. We will not, thank heaven, return to the sixties. India is much stronger now, and there is only so much harm that an indecisive government can inflict upon a nation’s ability. All governments in a democracy are temporary. 

Equally, the optimism that we had begun to take for granted, perhaps out of complacency, has been derailed. The challenge of 2014 is not going to be winning an election, but restoring the economy to health and vigour. A nation is only as strong as its economy. There is no magic wand as we enter our 67th year. There was no wand in 1991 either. We recovered because we needed the shock to come to our senses. It is time for a radical reboot once again.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The media menu of a last supper

The media menu of a last supper

“Newspapers are owned and published by rich men. Rich men all belong to the same club. Sure, there’s competition — hard, tough competition for circulation, for newsbeats, for exclusive stories. Just so long as it doesn’t damage the prestige and privilege and position of the owners. If it does, down comes the lid.”
This is not from any book of quotations. But it does suggest that truth finds a better home in fiction than anthology. The author is Raymond Chandler, an authentic master of modern fiction who created the shabby and sharp private detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe — and Chandler — lived amid the shadows that enveloped wealth and crime in mid-20th century Los Angeles; they knew that the difference was marginal and the price was high if you talked too much. Marlowe talked too much. He did something even more risky. He spoke the truth.

Newspapers in his time made the rich richer with their explosive mix of political influence and advertising monopoly. A British Prime Minister of the 1930s famously charged newspapers with enjoying the privilege of a harlot, exercising power without responsibility. But this was a self-serving taunt. Media barons can give Prime Ministers advice from a pillow, but it is Prime Ministers who let them into the bedroom. Be that as it may, money has always chased power through media, and every democracy has provided this incestuous opportunity.

Transition destabilises any industry, and this is happening with newspapers. At least some of the rich are becoming poorer, thanks to newspapers they own. The most dramatic illustration has been the sale of the Washington Post by the Graham family to Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon. This transfer does not suggest, as many have moaned, that news is going out of business; at worst, it could suggest that paper is going out of business. Bezos bought the Post with spare change in a forgotten trouser pocket, but he rose from denim to riches through the information trade. Newspapers will be reshaped, as they should be from time to time, but this does not change the fundamental need for an information carrier.

It is a car with two drivers. Owners step into journalist space through a conundrum called “publisher”. Editors comfort themselves with the romance of independence, and perhaps there is the occasional powerful personality who dominates a newsroom at the expense of the shareholder. But that is the exception. Editorial decisions are a shared enterprise. The Washington Post became an indelible chapter in media history when its series of reports, familiar to us as the Watergate exposé, brought down Richard Nixon just after he had won a landslide endorsement from the people. But the decision to run the investigation was made as much by Katherine Graham, the owner, as by Ben Bradlee, the editor.

Bezos is a wise chap. He has appointed Bob Woodward, one of the stars of Watergate, as managing editor. The key to media does not lie in ownership, but in credibility. Without credibility, a newspaper is just wrapping for fish and chips if not a rag for rubbish. Credibility makes journalists indispensable to publishers.
Are publishers indispensable to journalists? Yes. Journalists may be know-alls, but the one thing they do not know is how to run a business. The newspaper industry is also an industry. It is not an accident that owners of an old Indian media conglomerate like Times of India and a new one like Zee have a very healthy respect for profits. They understand what journalists should acknowledge, that a newspaper or television channel cannot stand up against any government without a healthy bottom line. They do not have to look over their shoulder if they want to break stories at the cost of a ruling family’s displeasure.

A media house fails when it forgets that both credibility and cash flow are important. The list of Indian media companies who have forgotten this basic rule is long and growing. Behind very thin curtains, big names are crumbling. The cost of plaster being applied to disguise this collapse is the transfer of shares and control. We will not find out the full truth till the end arrives, suddenly, and not without a residual whiff of bitterness, as in the case of the Washington Post.

But media will survive, whether in America or India, even if owners do not. Information is not an aggregate of everything on the highway. It is a cull of that which is relevant. Of course, there are interests, as the cynic Raymond Chandler noted, with his usual caustic flourish. But even the super rich cannot hold on to these laser scalpels called newspapers if they do not understand that while their personal interests may occasionally dent the integrity of a product, they should never damage it.

A good newspaper proprietor feeds the goose that lays golden eggs. He does not put it on the menu of a last supper.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

After Pak priacy, an Indian conspiracy

After Pak priacy, an Indian conspiracy

There is no reason why defence minister A.K. Antony should apologise.
A jury is often asked to distinguish between a mistake and a crime. The first is unconscious, the second deliberate. A lapse may be condoned by apology. Crime demands punishment. Antony did not make a mistake when, on the floor of Parliament, he crafted a loophole through which the Pakistan army could escape responsibility after having killed, with the help of around twenty terrorists, five Indian soldiers. Antony consciously subverted the Indian army’s official account,  based on battlefield evidence, to help the killers. This is a political crime, all the more heinous for having been committed by a defence minister.

Antony must resign.

The Opposition has made the wrong demand in Parliament, and not for the first time either.

Antony was not alone; his statement was fashioned in the alibi room of the UPA government, drafted in collusion with the external affairs ministry and in collaboration with the Prime Minister’s Office. That is how policy towards Pakistan is knitted.

Antony was the voice of an Indian government conspiracy to exonerate the piracy of the Pakistan army. The cost  will take time to count. First: five dead Indian soldiers, banished into the oblivion of hypocritical phrases which are this government’s version of a martyr’s farewell. Second: the morale of Indian troops on this vicious border, who must be wondering what the value of their lives is. Third: the humiliation of officers who reported what happened in a war zone. Fourth: the implications of a government policy that capitulates in the face of fire. The list can continue.

Questions will not go away merely because the UPA  government is struggling to hide behind a veil. Who are the bureaucrats and ministers involved in sabotage and deflection of  pinpoint accusation? The Indian army spokesman was unequivocal. He blamed the Border Action Team of the Pak frontier forces, working in conjunction with around 20 terrorists.  

Antony’s significant variation, in which Pak soldiers recognised as such by Indian troops at the time of ambush were turned into the more ambiguous “persons dressed in Pak army uniform”, was too clever by half. The simplest cross-examination destroys such artifice. If none of them were Pak soldiers, as Antony implies, why should only some of them be “dressed in Pak army uniform”? Why not all, or none?

In the absence of explanation one can only surmise that Antony, on behalf of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was trying to find wriggle room for his still-fresh Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif so that nothing vitiates their proposed dialogue in New York this September. Despite nearly a decade of earnest desire and one-way concessions, Dr Singh has not been able to achieve a summit meeting in Islamabad but that has not prevented him from engaging personally with Pakistan leaders wherever else in the world he can find them. If, in the process, the truth about blood must be watered, so be it.

The Pak army is not famous for asking Nawaz Sharif’s permission whenever it feels the moment is right to murder a few Indians: even if Delhi is undone by amnesia, surely Sharif remembers Kargil. But note the difference. Privately, Nawaz Sharif is probably certain that the Pak army denial is a load of rubbish. But he has supported this  denial in order to protect his army. Antony has subverted Indian forces to protect Pakistan.

Dr Singh, who continues to overflow with good intentions, should ask himself why precisely his search for peace with Pakistan has run aground repeatedly. The two civilian governments he has dealt with have been led by Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, men who genuinely wanted better relations with India. Sharif even put peace in his election manifesto, so he has the strength of popular endorsement.

The problem is not the Pakistani state. The blockade comes from a shadow superstate that has ideological claims over Pakistan, and seeks permanent war with India as its destiny. The state tried formal war till 1965, before it was totally trumped in 1971. Since then, parts of the state have worked in collusion with terrorists who spearhead the warrior philosophy. Some Pak leaders, elected or not, have played a double game. Others, and one includes Zardari and Sharif in this category, have been more sincere. But their good will has not been good enough to sustain even one legitimate step towards any form of settlement. The more relevant fact is that when a Sharif does make a gesture, he is publicly warned by a proclaimed engineer of terrorism like Hafiz Saeed to stop, or face consequences.

Powerful elements of the Pak armed forces take their salary from the state, but give their loyalty to the superstate. This alliance talks in gun-bursts, and laughs at appeasement. Since Antony cannot understand either their language or laughter, he should find another job.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The evidence of humour

The evidence of humour

The fulcrum of a tipping point in public life is that mortal enemy of a politician: humour. A joke might not destroy reputation quite as effectively as a corruption scandal, but it deflates credibility. Through his long career Defence Minister A.K. Antony has been wise enough never to get tempted by a wisecrack; wit is not his forte. He might therefore be a little bewildered by the artillery fire of jokes after his disastrous mismanagement of the border incident in which five Indian soldiers lost their lives. Such humour has a memory. The voter will remember “Pakistan has two deadly weapons: AK-47 and A.K. Antony”.
If it is any consolation to Antony, jokes about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi are far more harsh. As we leap-frog our way towards another general election, Congress might discover that its biggest problem is ridicule.

It does not matter now when the next general election is held. We are in the last chapter of a drama that has gone on too long. The life of this government is over; dreaming of resurrection on a deathbed is a waste of time. For most of this term, policy was lost in a swamp. Now, decisions are made to serve as slogans.
If Congress had truly believed in Telangana, it would have completed the process three years ago, used this time to absorb reaction and respond by showcasing the practical merits of its decision. An announcement now is mercenary: to milk the environment for what votes it can bring, and postpone ensuing problems. The timing is determined not by advantage to the people but by thoughts of benefit to the party.

But politics is not a parlour game, even when the parlour is as charming as one in a spacious Delhi bungalow. All that Telangana has managed to achieve so far is to split the Congress, spur rage on the Andhra street, and provide more fodder to separatist banners. The dispute over Telangana has generated a dispute over Hyderabad. The second can become as chronic as the first. What was intended as a win-win situation could become a lose-lose scenario.

Likewise, nothing stopped UPA from passing food security legislation in the first six months of its second term, rather than the last six months, except fear that implementation would expose inadequacies of the project. Congress spin-masters still believe that this will help revive a formula that was brilliantly effective in a year when most of the present electorate was not born: 1971. Mrs Indira Gandhi won a tremendous victory that year with a simple proposition: Woh kehte hain Indira hatao, main kehti hoon garibi hatao [They (meaning those opposed to her) say remove Indira, I say remove poverty].

A promise is only as good as the worth of its trust. In 1971, Mrs Indira Gandhi was not enveloped by the odour of corruption, including within her own family. The poor believed that she would usher in an Indian version of socialism that would end their misery. No one laughed at Mrs Indira Gandhi, or indeed her defence minister, except at his own peril. There are other reasons for scepticism. Congress has been in power for three of the four decades since 1971, in sustained spells rather than the sporadic bursts of V.P. Singh, Chandrashekhar, Deve Gowda or Inder Gujral. Indira Gandhi’s promise is still a dream.

Every election is another gate towards the future, not a backdoor to the past. We must solve inherited problems, of course, the most important of which is surely poverty. But this needs an economic programme that takes change forward in quantum leaps, not throwaway sops. In 2009, UPA won handsome endorsement because voters believed that if it got five more years, it would create a new India. Five years have passed. We are staring instead at a very old India, one we imagined we had shed in the folds of the past, weighed down with cynicism, its middle class ill with angst rather than alive with the vibrant optimism that was the story of the first decade of this century.

The dark side of today’s political satire is the evil of corruption. There is a school within the ruling establishment selling the theory that corruption as an election issue has been deflected. This is delusion. The voter is not going to be finessed by the argument that all politicians are corrupt, and so theft of the present lot should be condoned. A jury can punish only the person in the dock, and the present government is on trial in the next electoral court.

Jokes are the evidence and the argument in this trial; the voter is both lawyer and judge in the court of the people. But there is some good news for those on trial. The maximum sentence is just five years in wilderness. The next five years will pass as quickly as the last five.

Friday, August 09, 2013



Sunday, August 04, 2013

For every Telangana, a dozen seeds are being fertilized

For every Telangana, a dozen seeds are being fertilized

The relationship between change and economic growth is often logical, but can occasionally lapse into paradox. The history of revolutions suggests that radical change is more likely to emerge from economic collapse, which is common sense. The Russian Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky, who had the gift of rephrasing common sense in an uncommon manner without sacrificing logic to phraseology, noted that people did not change governments, and consequently their own lives, when they had found an alternative; they did so when they were fed up. 

Nearly a century after the Russian Revolution, change has expanded its contours. In some parts of the post-colonial world, a sharp rise in resource wealth and government spending has not followed conventional wisdom and led to societies fashioned around the western-liberal-democratic template. Instead, such governments often use corrosive ideas to incubate deeper levels of conservatism through a state-financed propaganda narrative. They encourage their people to sink into identities that seem stagnant and immutable, abetted by a school curriculum that indoctrinates generations. 

India has had a radically different experience. One remains uncertain about whether this is due to the impact of democracy upon India, or India upon democracy. History’s jury could deliver a verdict either way, and the judgement will be hotly debated. But one thing is clear. In its search for change India has opted for insurrection as its primary instrument, rather than revolution. 

A revolution does not pause once begun, even during its phases of retreat in the course of a long struggle. An insurrection builds momentum in bursts, and ebbs from the surface during fallow spells. This can easily mislead an establishment, which quickly tends to believe that it has either managed to defeat or purchase a passing upsurge. But such ash is not dead. Its spirit smoulders, waiting for the moment to resurrect. 

Insurrection is perfectly suited to the practicals of democracy, whose inbuilt valves release intense pressure — most notably in an election, and also outside the electoral structure as well. The challenge of an Anna Hazare, therefore, cannot be banished into the doleful exile of yesterday’s headlines. It will find a place in the events of tomorrow, not merely in crucial votes picked up by the Aam Aadmi Party in the tiny enclave called New Delhi, but also in the nationwide anger against outrageous corruption. Similarly, the demand for Telangana can burst and wither over six decades, and then suddenly get traction in politics. 

The strength of democratic insurrection lies not in the commitment of politicians, who can be easily diverted by the promise of co-option, and its complementary rewards of hard cash, but in the fact that it is people-driven. 

Gandhi, being a Mahatma, was the only Indian leader who could straddle the chasm between revolution and insurrection. That was because he kept them on a parallel course, with different objectives. He offered a revolutionary prescription for social ills, in particular the malpractice of religion, but understood that the cure would take time far beyond the limitations of his own life. His politics, driven by the need to remove foreign rule, was the sum total of three insurrections, each separated by a decade: non-cooperation between 1920 and 1922; the brief Salt Satyagraha ten years later; and then the final push that began in 1942, the Quit India movement. He moved forward in quantum leaps, but realized that the Indian people should be prevented from over-reach, leaving his followers perplexed and opponents mystified. His politics achieved supreme success; his revolution demanded supreme sacrifice. 

We have abandoned ideology, Gandhian or Communist, but political insurrection is the ghost that will not be interred. Decisions such as the creation of Telangana need the framework of composite control, or they can degenerate into nihilism. For every Telangana that emerges, a dozen seeds are being fertilized in the womb of time. It is not easy to lecture Gorkhas in Darjeeling that they do not deserve what the old domains of the Nizam of Hyderabad have got. 

Troubled spirits in our tribal regions, led by quasi-Maoists, believe that geography is only another illusion encouraged by a rapacious ruling class. They want to shatter the economic needlework of our democratic system. Facile answers do not work, and even they do not seem to be on offer. 

The greatest irony of contemporary India is that something did work in Andhra Pradesh. Y S Rajashekhar Reddy, a Congress chief minister, was able to eliminate the substantial threat of the country’s oldest Communist insurrection, and where else but in Telangana itself. In the process, he also marginalized the demand for a separate state. Within four years of Reddy’s death, appalling administration has undone Reddy’s finest achievement. He healed wounds that had become chronic. There was a cure in the clinic of a Dr Reddy. But in the workshop of a Dr Frankenstein, problems have again begun to magnify in the waiting room.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

And the nominee for Best Hasty Pudding is....

And the nominee for Best Hasty Pudding is....

Every industry must be permitted the luxury of self-congratulation, particularly if no one else is too eager to do the honours. The foundations of this modern excess were laid in the little town of Hollywood, created in the late 19th century by an eccentric millionaire determined to nurture the ideals of abstinence. Look where good intentions got us.

When Hollywood grew up and rewarded itself with stars, sex and alcohol, it realised the need for some symbol of recognition for its art form. Ergo, the Oscars. Statues breed statuettes. There are more categories of awards now than cinema knew existed when it was born.

It is surprising that journalism, which is no less creative than Hollywood, has not yet invented an award for the best news factories, the assembly line of politicians who become famous by issuing an endless stream of statements. The number of contenders would be within limits. The major parties have about a dozen each; the smaller ones two or three. Most of them are official nominees, but there are an irrepressible few who float in some greater realm, their legitimacy assured by proximity to higher powers or celebrity status inherited from an earlier career. To paraphrase the charming P.G. Wodehouse, master of the English language, the former are gruntled, the latter largely disgruntled.

We could begin with just one Spokesbite of the Year award. Later, we could diversify: Best Example of Law of Unintended Consequences; Finest Double Entendre by Ageing Celebrity in Search of Rajya Sabha Seat; Best Misunderstanding of Hindi Slang Lost in Translation into English, to name a few. The possibilities are fertile: Best Mismatch of English Grammar and Indian Meaning; Worst Distortion of Intent by Twitter Limitations; Most Acrobatic Fall on Flattery Oil; Finest Self-Goal in Competition for Minority Vote Bank; or even Most Creative Abuse of Existing Foe who Might be Tomorrow’s Friend. There should be no shortage of sponsors either, since this part of the ceremony is bound to be infinitely entertaining.

Sceptics are bound to wonder whether any politicians will actually come to pick up their awards. Audiences, inside or outside a theatre, would be bewildered if the recipient was unable to thank a Supreme Leader, wife, husband, parents, ghost writer, constituents and that wise-cracking pal who dreamt up the gag in the first place. Sceptics are vastly mistaken. Politicians are far smarter than them. They know that 90% of a television audience only remembers that you got an award, not why you got it.

The only reasonable condition that politicians would impose was that the award be handed over by a celebrity who is still celebrated, like a film star who remains in play when high-profile roles are being discussed by the big bosses of popular movies. If Amitabh Bachchan is unavailable and Katrina Kaif is busy, there are others. But there is nothing to be gained by receiving an award from anyone reduced to the art cinema circuit. Even worse would be Raj Babbar smiling at Shatrughan Sinha and, for the next award, Sinha returning the favour to Babbar. Nor would anyone care too much for a mutual back-scratch between Digvijay Singh and Shakeel Ahmad.

The Prize of Prizes should be reserved for a Best Hasty Pudding Prize, offered for verbal concoctions cooked up within the blink of a sleepy eyelid. This would be a test of intrinsic individual capability, rather than a paragraph patiently constructed over a languorous afternoon. Judges would measure worth by the taste of the pudding; it would be of no concern to them whether it was healthy or not, since only political parties suffer ill-effects from the instant wit and wisdom of their preferred chefs. Media’s gratitude emanates from the fact that journalism is the best restaurant where such pudding can be served. Nothing sells news more efficiently than politicians bleeding to death from self-inflicted wounds. The laughter of the audience is both free and contagious, two virtues that media values above all else.

These great chefs of mass consumption slip from their high standards only because the temptation to produce fast food has become almost irresistible in an age when social media is as popular as a hamburger. Social media is a term that reveals all with the stark simplicity of nudity. Any comment longer than 140 characters, or a slapdash pastry thrown on the face of a screen page, is ipso facto anti-social.

Discourse, therefore, is about accusation, not comprehension. This is perfect for the latest version of television dialogue, which bridges brevity with hysteria. Anyone who seeks any more is dumped into the dustbin of boredom. Do not blame journalists alone. This is what the viewer wants; this is what the viewer gets.

Obviously there should be a lifetime achievement award as well, for shortest sentence with maximum impact. It would be inappropriate to hand out a statue for this. A tweezer could be a good substitute.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

An Indian election, possibly to the dismay of those journalists transfixed by hype, is not a contest between Lord Rama and Bhagwan Krishna. In the real world, it is mostly between General Hocus and Admiral Pocus. The voter does not choose between two paragons of virtue. He takes a punt on what is available, warts and all.

Does this leave the electorate in serious depression? No.  The Indian voter, having abandoned illusion in the mid-1960s, is now beyond disillusion: feet on the ground, eyes open and ears tuned to that fine pitch that distinguishes fact from bombast, he scans politics with a reality-check laser beam. The next general election will not be decided by the froth of school-playground taunt and retort that dampens television screens every evening. It will  hinge on a challenge to democracy posed some 2500 years ago.

Socrates asked  a simple question: who prevails in a trial between a doctor and a pastry chef before a jury of children? For the Greek philosopher, who placed the virtue of logic far above the merits of popular will, the answer was a no-brainer: a landslide for cooks. But if Socrates had been born in 1947 and observed Indian elections with his rigorous intellectual diligence for over six decades, he would surely have seen the flaw in his thesis. Politicians may still offer either prescription or pastry, or indeed cake and more cake, but the jury has grown up. The voter understands the difference between a sweetmeat today and bread tomorrow. Every election after 1952 has been about delivery, not promise.

Jawaharlal Nehru did not win in 1957 by distributing free soft cheese. He was rewarded for hard decisions. No economic reform has been as important, or as dramatic, as land reform, the basis of food security.  Independence is a bitter joke if a nation has to beg for food to prevent starvation. The Nehru model extended to  reorganization of states to empower people, industrial cities that absorbed an emerging working and middle class, emotional and economic succour to refugees devastated by partition, and a foreign policy that minimised threats to a nation that had suffered colonized.  

By the 1960s, things began to fall apart on every aspect of the Nehru thrust - China, states, famine. In the case of China and Pakistan, friendship failed. The bigger mistake was fundamental. Congress forgot that every set of ideas demands the next set of ideas.
In 1971 Mrs Indira Gandhi offered a placebo. The balm had very temporary effect. The following three decades of despair exacted an extremely heavy price. Economic stagnation bred myriad forms of violence, from Maoist insurrection to communal and caste explosions. A stable government is possible only in a stable environment: every Union government between 1977 and 2004 was defeated. Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee might have survived, for they offered economic promise, but they were consumed by violence of the 1990s. A fire takes longer to extinguish than to start.

Corruption leapt up from  margins to  central dominance. There were many reasons, but among them was the gradual realisation by politicians that job security was over. They made as much hay as possible during the brief sunshine in their careers.
The government of Dr Manmohan Singh, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi won in 2009 because enough voters were convinced that it would, given another five years, win India a place at the high table of the world's economy by raising growth and ensuring that its benefits seeped down to the impoverished base. Hope is the most dangerous thing you can betray. Growth in welfare was substituted by a cancerous spread in corruption. Nor could blame be transferred to subsidiary players. Among the accused was Robert Vadra, which took the story into the home of the most powerful family in government.
People expected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to be a tough doctor in the Socratic mould. Instead, in his second term, he turned out to be another pastry cook.

The Indian voter could be forgiven for turning cynical. He has, fortunately, only abandoned emotion - not fully, of course, but in sufficient numbers to create a different pattern. The voter has become an accountant.  Minor exceptions apart, every election now delivers a clear mandate. Opinion polls  manage to indicate a trend, but are far less successful in estimating the extent of victory, as even a casual look at  Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Bihar, Goa, Punjab, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal or Karnataka proves. The message is obvious. No government can take recourse to an alibi for non-performance. Victors swirl in  silk at the time of coronation but are  left with a thong when accountability kicks in. The Indian voter has become cool, which is the perfect temperature for democracy.

There is no reason yet visible why this pattern should not hold in either the state polls this year or the general election next year.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Day of Judgement

The Day of Judgement

Human nature, when in a good mood, takes pride in saving a fellow being from impending tragedy. A good case can now be made for saving a person — including one with an inhuman record — from continuing farce. It is time we organised a mass petition to end the presumed trial of Sajjan Kumar for inciting murder and mayhem during the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi 28 years ago. For nearly three decades he has escaped justice through one legal feint after another, abetted by authorities. This happened again last week. Why pretend? Send a simple message to the victims of 1984: Abandon hope, all ye who enter the Indian judicial maze.

As politics buzzes towards another general election; as conversation and opinion polls chase each other along an entertaining circumference; as reasons advance and propositions retreat; as issues climb on the graph of voter-impact, and reasons get dissected with a surgeon’s scalpel, one gut cause for popular anger seems to have eluded the attention of pundits and their hangers on: justice.

The wide spectrum of justice can breed paradox. Take the tragedy of mid-day meal deaths in Bihar. The rage of the poor is obviously legitimate. The principal and cohorts who poisoned impoverished children with insecticide are not mere criminals driven by greed; they have, at some sub-conscious level, a pathological hatred for the dispossessed, as if the poor do not deserve more than a dustbin. But at least one consequence seems bizarre. Bihar’s teachers have gone on strike after the episode, arguing that serving meals is not part of their duties. They too claim to be victims of injustice.

Is there a rational connect between both grievances? Yes, collapse of government. The Supreme Court orders governments to provide meals in schools. The state government has neither the infrastructure, nor the will to create one. It makes no effort to match intention with ability. This is not a question of money. The cost of a meal is only a small percentage of resources needed to finance administrations that have bloated across the land.

No state government can afford to accept this truth, for that would be political suicide in a democracy. So it does what it has learnt to do, encourage a practice built on compromise and theft. A meal scheme for children needs a professional process that can be held accountable. Instead, government throws some money at teachers who are allowed to do what they want. There are cuts along the way as money travels from capital city to district headquarters, and then to the principal. Everyone is not as brutally dishonest as those in charge of the Chhapra school, or there would have been such calamities more frequently. But the system is wont to treat the poor as sub-human. The poor, they believe, eat dirt in their homes; why should they get any better in school?

A horrifying tragedy has exposed death by poisoning. There is a greater horror that has not hit the headlines: the slow poisoning of hundreds of thousands of children who are getting rotten food, just short of visible worms and insecticide. Slow death does not make news.

Injustice is not new in India. What is new, and long overdue, is demand for redress. Tribals have been marginalised for centuries, ever since they lost political control over their natural habitat in the green belt of forests along the midriff of India. Feudal India had no time for them, except occasionally as security slaves. Colonial India had no time for anyone except compradors. But even democratic India was indifferent or exploitative. The tribal demand for justice is being heard through guns.

Others have not turned to violence — yet. The poor still have some faith in democracy, and express their anger in elections. But a ruling class tends to treat time as an endless resource. Within the folds of time is an ignition box, which must be defused or it will explode.

Corruption is another synonym for injustice, for it is robbery of people’s resources. Corruption is not exchange of wealth between the rich; it is the people’s money accumulating in limited pockets. The teachers in Bihar were not paying for meals from their salaries; they were siphoning off money collected from taxes. Those mobile companies who bought spectrum at deflated prices were also stealing from the national purse.

Justice is neither expected nor offered in a dictatorship, which is why it becomes such an intense demand when a dictator falls. But justice is intrinsic to democracy. An ordinary crime is punished through law; political culpability meets its fate in elections. When justice is denied, it lingers in the mind; you can dull its edges, as in the Sajjan Kumar case, but it will haunt you from some corner of the national conscience. Every election is a judgement on justice. The verdict may not be perfect, but it works.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu nationalist

When logic snaps, rational discourse stumbles. Why is it perfectly acceptable to applaud a Muslim nationalist, but denigrate a Hindu nationalist? Either both terms are right,  or both wrong.

Mahatma Gandhi gave "Muslim nationalism"  institutional credibility when, in the fractured decade after the Khilafat movement, Muslims who believed in him formed the All-India Nationalist Muslim Party on 27 and 28 July 1929, with Dr M.A. Ansari at the helm. Our present vice president, Hamid Ansari, belongs to this family.   

Gandhi was father of an ideology that knit the groundwork of   modern India. His moral compass was set on a firm axis: politics without religion was immoral. Among the first to be impressed by this proposition were the maulvis who later banded under Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind; their alliance would flower during the non-cooperation struggle.  Hindu and Muslim are birth identities; they do not change, unless one becomes an atheist. But nationalism, a political concept, can vary. Gandhi did not. From 1915, the year he entered Indian public life, to 1948, when he was assassinated, he believed that India must be a land where all faiths co-existed as equals, guided by sarva dharma sambhav.

Gandhi's nationalism was the antithesis of communalism. He was distressed to the point of agony by the slow drift within the Muslim elite towards separatism. This culminated in partition when  Jinnah reduced "Muslim nationalism" to "Muslim nation". It was a visible reduction, philosophically, intellectually and finally geographically. Gandhi promised Muslims honour and equality in a nation from Khyber to Chittagong; Jinnah's prescription eventually reduced Pakistan to a  sliver of land on either side of the Indus, wracked by fundamentalism and riven by insecurity.

The difference between "Hindu nationalism" and "Hindu nation" is equally uncomplicated. If anyone wants to be a Hindu nationalist, offer a warm welcome; if the call is for a Hindu nation, point out that religion is ineffective as a basis for nationhood. Pakistan is a good example. Indeed, if religion worked as a glue, why on earth would there be 22 Arab nations? Hindu extremism existed in Gandhi's time, but it never got much traction beyond the fringe; and it could not, ipso facto, seek secession.

Gandhi would have been puzzled by any suggestion that Hinduism  was an obstacle to secularism; his Hinduism was an inexhaustible well of brotherhood, just as his colleague  Maulana Azad offered Islam as a superb rationale for inter-faith harmony.  Both used a faith-influenced dialectic almost unconsciously. Hindu-majority India is not secular because Gandhi was secular; Gandhi was secular because India is secular.

Gandhi was proud to be a  Hindu. He promised Ram Rajya, not some variation of a fashionable western dictum, whether Marxist or Fabian. Ram Rajya was a metaphor for prosperity and equality, not subjugation. Gandhi did not  shy away from caste. His tongue only partly in  cheek, he told the Shafi faction of the Muslim League on 22 February 1931: "Brethren, I am abania, and there is no limit  to my greed. It had always been my dream and my heart's desire to speak not only for 21 crores but for 30 crores of Indians." He was answering the charge that he spoke only for Hindus.  

Nor did Gandhi's disciple and heir, Jawaharlal Nehru, think  that the prefix 'Pandit' would stain his status as a secular  icon. Privately, Nehru was more agnostic than believer, but learnt from Gandhi that he could not sneer at, let alone abandon, his Brahmin identity. India is a land of the faithful. Those who today feel 'Pandit' might be an embarrassment have not seen Durga Puja in secular Calcutta.

Strangely, those Muslim League stalwarts who were determined to parade every mark of their religious identity as a fundamental right, spread the canard that Gandhi's Ram Rajya would enslave  Muslims. We see variations all the time, among far lesser beings, as  vocal networks control debate, and stoke a fear psychosis that suits those who think the Muslim vote is better sought through fear than development.  

The insidious power of hysteria sent Indian Muslims en masse towards the separatist Muslim League in the 1946 elections.  Gandhi was reviled and taunted along the way. An important caveat is necessary, however. The 1946 franchise was restricted; only about 11% had the right to vote: landowners, rate-payers,  graduates; the elite. How would elections have gone if Gandhi's masses, the poor, who often have better political judgement than those better off,  had voted?

Faith does not make us communal, human nature does. A politician has as much right to be a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian as any other citizen. Any doubt  about an aspirant to power can be cleared by a simple question: is he committed tosarva dharma sambhav or not? If the answer is unclear, vote for someone else.

Let those Indians who want to pray, do so; let those who want to watch television instead, switch on.  Faith is a freedom.  Let us celebrate this freedom with a smile, not a snarl.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Money shouts, conscience merely murmurs

Money shouts, conscience merely murmurs

Would you walk?
Think about it. You have time, which Stuart Broad did not, when he was batting for England on the third day of the first Ashes Test in a fierce game which was certain to produce a result, and where, therefore, every single run counted in double digits. Stuart Broad had to choose between honesty and expediency in those instinctive seconds between a vociferous appeal and the umpire’s decision after he nicked a ball to first slip. He realised what everyone saw, except for the umpire who, being eyeless, shall be left nameless. Broad knew he was out. Honour demanded voluntary departure from the crease; he chose to wait for the jury to make a mistake even when he knew he was guilty.
For you, lolling on a sofa, or, if a cricket junkie, watching the match on television, any debate with conscience may seem merely theoretical. But is it any the less important? For the debate is about values. Is honesty dispensable? Are survival and success the only priorities in life?
Cricket, like existence, is not always black and white. There are situations in which a batsman has every right to hold his ground against a chorus of theatrical appeals, because he is genuinely uncertain, most often in a leg-before-wicket decision, or when a catch has not gone cleanly to hand. Innovations like the technology-driven third umpire have been created to find light through grey space. But Stuart Broad’s case is worth mention precisely because there was huge daylight between black and white. He was out. Everyone on the field, and millions outside, knew the truth.
Honour was once essential to the spirit of cricket. Bad behaviour, caused by temperament or the pressures of sport, was a discrepancy. No one has ever wanted to fail through the long history of human endeavour, and yet cricket looked down upon success without honour. In the larger field of life, honour bred the honours system, which was society’s way of recognising merit. You could, of course, occasionally buy your way to a gong, for money always talks. But money used to speak in a whisper. Today it shouts. The little murmur of conscience is lost in such noise.
Cricket was always proud to place itself on a pedestal, even when inconsistencies existed lower down. Till the 1950s, there was obnoxious class distinction, in which the amateur entered the field through the club gate, and professionals used a turnstile. A gentleman considered payment beneath his dignity, largely because he had enough money. The professional, from the working class, could not afford to take a week off from his job. But during the game honesty was not divisible by class.
We claim to live in a more egalitarian age, but we have turned “professional” into a synonym for amorality. Broad was exonerated because of his “professional” approach, as if honour is now a derisory hobby of the parson or a preacher.
In 1980 India and England played a Test in Mumbai to commemorate the jubilee of the BCCI. India’s captain was the courteous, gentlemanly G.R. Viswanath. England was led by the gentlemanly analyst Mike Brearley. At a turning point in the match, England wicket-keeper Bob Taylor was given out leg before. Visibly upset, he hung around in obvious protest. But there was obviously no review system. Viswanath, to everyone’s surprise, overturned the bemused umpire and asked Taylor to play on. He did, and helped England win the Test. Was that the holy moment when the world of cricket saw the light? No. Since then, it is the tough school of thought which has taken over the game. Some cricketers still at the crease have resisted the trend. Australian Adam Gilchrist famously walked against Sri Lanka in 2003, and South African Hashim Amla does not linger if he knows he is out. But both have an old-fashioned look about them.
So would you walk? The question is larger than cricket. Ministers, ordinary, extraordinary, chief or prime, do not walk when exposed as corrupt, or when atrocious administration kills children after a mid-day meal. Do those on lower rungs of power, whether secretary presiding over a department, or clerk guarding a file, walk away from a bribe? Do business executives walk away from offering one? What prevails in the constant battle between commerce and conscience? If we all walked away from temptation, wouldn’t the world be a nice little Utopia?
The first commandment of contemporary religion is unambiguous: Thou shalt win. Everyone, as the saying goes, loves a winner. There is a second commandment: Thou shalt not be so stupid as to get caught. There is no third commandment. If Stuart Broad were only a cog in a game it might not matter, but he is also a role model for millions of young people. If survival by any means can guarantee heroism, then surely plain old morality sucks.

Enjoy the delicious fruits of survival. Don’t walk.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The real cost of a bribe

The real cost of a bribe

If, in 2002, a traffic cop in the fairy-tale town of Swat had booked a car speeding through its bazaar, NATO troops could have left Pakistan by 2003, Iraq might have escaped NATO’s invasion, Barack Obama would probably be an unknown Senator from Chicago and George Bush Junior’s presidential library in Texas would certainly have something to cheer about. But, according to Maryam, her husband Ibrahim al-Kuwaiti “quickly settled the matter”, and the bribed Swat cop never realized he had just let Osama bin Laden escape. Maryam was giving evidence before the Justice Javed Iqbal commission, set up to enquire into the events of 2 May 2011, when US Navy Seals flew three hours into Pak territory, found and killed Osama. Nothing works on our great subcontinent better than instant cash. Al-Kuwati, Osama’s most trust aide, knew that. This is the kind of authentic detail which makes a fabulous story so entirely believable.

Which bit of this enquiry report, spread over 336 pages, garnered from 201 witnesses, is beyond doubt, which is useful, and how many witnesses have spun out little gossamer tales hide truth in a silken web?

Trivia, as indicated, deserves its place in the footnotes of history. Osama, according to a wife, wore a cowboy hat to protect himself from aerial surveillance. Well: where do you buy a 10-gallon Texan hat in Abbottabad? Can’t bring it in the luggage from a Bora Bora battlefield, either. Perhaps she confused it with a baseball cap. We also learn that Osama sometimes shaved his signature beard as part of a disguise. True, this would be perfect deception, but how long would it take to get that beard back to its original majestic length? Presumably no one in that band of brothers and wives had the courage to click a mobile picture of Osama in transition, not even a young consort in a playful mood.

In 2005, after pit stops in five Pakistan cities, the Osama entourage settled into this military garrison town, in a house so visible that no one could see it. The property was bought with a fake ID; perhaps the traffic cop principle was operational again. Four electricity and gas meters were installed in that house; no one asked why. This might have a proper explanation. No one checks electricity meters in Pakistan, so why make an exception in Abbottabad?

The high wall surrounding the house collapsed in the 2005 earthquake, and rubble lay around for months, but no one bothered to enquire, or even see, who lived inside. If you want to raise one eyebrow, reserve your second for the next story. An official survey area listed this home as “be-chiragh” or uninhabited. The Iqbal commission knows the answer: it acknowledges something “more sinister”. In 2005, Pak intelligence “closed the book” on Osama bin Laden; there was “grave complicity (at an) undetermined level”.

That level was obviously former dictator Pervez Musharraf, for this is how decisions are made during army rule. There was no incompetence. There was complicity. Take just one fact: CIA gave ISI certain phone numbers to monitor; it did not. At each turn, Islamabad manufactured and sold a lie to the world. In the beginning came Musharraf’s repeated denials, often accompanied by the hearty laugh reminiscent of retired colonels in the old British army. At the end, when Washington declared Osama dead, a chorus of spokespeople was paraded before media, not least Indian television, to nudge-wink the suggestion that Osama’s capture was a joint US-Pak operation. America had long stopped trusting Pakistan on Osama. Justice Iqbal and his brave colleagues refused to seal a lie with interpretative approval, and deserve our unstinted praise. The episode, they say, indicates not just incompetence or irresponsibility, but something “worse”.

The commission touched one significant nerve when it analyzed the complete failure of Pakistan’s military defences on its western frontier, breached totally by America on that historic night of May 2. The Pakistan air force apparently learnt about Operation Neptune Spear only when it saw media reports. “In the premier intelligence institution,” the report notes, referring to ISI, “religiosity replaced accountability.” The meaning is not complicated. India is the only enemy.

Pakistan’s security regime defines sovereignty in what might be called Indian terms. This is not new; it claims Kashmir but calmly hands over a part under its control to China. America does not respect Pakistani sovereignty over its skies, and uses drones where and when it wants. Protest from Islamabad is token, if not hypocritical. Accommodation with China or America is justified by realpolitik, but any effort at adjustment with India, even along the Cease Fire Line, internationally acknowledged as the acceptable dividing line, is dismissed as “capitulation”.

The people and most politicians of Pakistan have inched away from anti-India obsession, but the military-religious pincer is so strong that even elected governments feel locked in, helpless. Peace between India and Pakistan is blocked not by ground reality, but by ghosts in the mind. In the meantime, worry about the cost of a bribe.